MILLIONS of women are putting themselves at risk from breast cancer because they're not checking their breasts regularly.
Worryingly, when they do find lumps - or other symptoms - they are delaying seeing a doctor because they are too embarrassed.
One in four women - that's 5.8 million - have never checked their breasts for signs of cancer, or can't remember the last time they did, according to terrifying new research from Bupa and HCA Healthcare UK.
Experts said it is alarming that many young women feel too embarrassed to speak to medics about their fears.
One in three adults admitted to not seeking help because they worried about wasting the doctor's time or were ashamed. But that number rose to half in 18 to 34 year olds.
Not being certain of identifying the symptoms of breast cancer is partly to blame, doctors said.
Women don't know breast cancer signs
Just 17 per cent of women could correctly ID eight symptoms of breast cancer, which include a lump, breast pain or nipple changes.
And 12 per cent couldn't identify any signs of the disease at all - despite the fact it's the most common cancer to affect Brit women.
Around 55,000 new cases of the disease are diagnosed every year, with almost 12,000 lives lost.
Early diagnosis saves lives
But like many cancers, early diagnosis is key to improving survival rates.
And in order to ensure early diagnosis it is vital women know the signs they should be checking for.
Georgina Hill, from Cancer Research UK, told The Sun: “There are various signs and symptoms of breast cancer, so it’s important people get to know what’s normal for them and tell their GP if they notice any unusual changes.
"Although you might feel that some symptoms can be embarrassing to talk about, remember GPs are used to dealing with things their patients may find difficult to discuss.
"Chances are it won’t be cancer – but it’s best to get it checked out.’’
How to check your breasts for signs of breast cancer
There is a five-step self-exam you can do at home to check for any changes.
Step one: Begin by looking in a mirror, facing it with your arms on your hips and your shoulders straight. You should be looking for any dimpling, puckering, bulging skin, redness, soreness, a rash or changes in the nipple.
Step two: Still looking in the mirror, raise both arms above your head and check for the same changes.
Step three: With your arms still above your head, check for any fluid coming from the nipples. This can include milky, yellow or watery fluid, or blood.
Step four: While lying down use your opposite hand to check each breast. Using a few fingers, keeping them flat and together, go in a small circular motion around your breasts. Make sure you feel the entire breast by going top to bottom in these small circles. It helps to develop a system or pattern to make sure every inch is covered. Use light pressure for the skin and tissue just beneath, medium pressure for the tissue in the middle of your breasts, and firm pressure to feel the tissue at the back, feeling down to your ribcage.
Step five: Feel your breasts while either standing or sitting. Breast awareness is all about getting to know what is normal for you - be that through small, circular motions or using whatever method you feel comfortable with.
Carolyn Rogers, Clinical Nurse Specialist at Breast Cancer Care, told us that the poll came as no real surprise.
“This poll reiterates what women tell us on our helpline every day - many are uncertain about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and, unfortunately, are often hesitant about reporting a breast change.
“And while most changes won’t be cancer, we know that early detection of breast cancer can mean more effective treatment.
“So whatever your age, it’s vital to get to know your breasts, and if you do spot anything unusual – be it a lump, dimpling or an inverted nipple - get it checked out by your GP. "
Women also reported difficulty in getting GP appointments, with 18-34 years old finding it the hardest. Others said that they were too busy or unable to take time off work.
In fact, it's the same kinds of excuses that have been cited by the millions of women who skip smear tests.
Coppa Feel every month - it could save your life
It's so important to regularly check your breasts for any changes.
Breast tissue reaches all the way up to your collarbone and across to your armpit, so it’s vital to check these areas too.
Charity CoppaFeel! recommends checking your breasts monthly, so you can pick up on any changes quickly.
Breasts do change naturally as part of your monthly menstrual cycle, so you should get to know your breasts, how they feel and what changes they usually go through to know if anything is out of the ordinary.
All you have to do is have a little feel when you're in the bath or shower - it takes less than a minute.
As one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives, it's crucial we know exactly what to look out for.
The signs of breast cancer you need to know...
1. Change in breast size or shape
Breasts can swell with pregnancy, breastfeeding and periods. But changes can also be indicative of something more sinister - you'll know what's usual for you. Get anything else checked.
2. Nipple discharge
If a liquid comes out without you squeezing your nipple, and you're not breastfeeding, get it checked - especially if its blood.
3. Swelling in the armpit or around the collarbone
Lumps are the most common sign of breast cancer but they don't always have to appear in the breast.
Breast tissue can be found under armpits and up to the collarbone - so make sure you check those areas during your self-examinations.
4. Change in skin texture
If the skin around your nipple starts to dimple or feel a bit like orange peel, it could be a sign of cancer.
A survey by Breast Cancer Care found that one in six women didn't know that that could be a sign of the disease.
5. An inverted nipple
Any changes to your breasts need to be checked as soon as you notice them. If you've always had inverted nipples, fine. If they suddenly seem to be pulled inwards, it could be a warning sign.
6. Constant pain
While pain in the breast area is really common, if it doesn't disappear after a reasonable amount of time, get it checked at your GP.
Remember, if anything about your breasts changes, it's always worth getting checked over by your doctor.
How to prevent breast cancer
The causes of breast cancer aren't fully understood yet, so it's not known if it can be prevented altogether - but there are a couple of things you can do to minimise your chances:
Diet and lifestyle
Studies have looked at the link between breast cancer and diet, and although there are no definite conclusions, there are benefits for women who:
- maintain a healthy weight
- exercise regularly
- have a low intake of saturated fat and alcohol
It's also been suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer by as much as a third.
If you've been through the menopause, it's particularly important that you're not overweight or obese. This is because these conditions cause more oestrogen to be produced by your body, which can increase the risk of breast cancer.
Studies have shown women who breastfeed are statistically less likely to develop breast cancer than those who don't.
The reasons aren't fully understood, but it could be because women don't ovulate as regularly while they're breastfeeding and oestrogen levels remain stable.
There are a number of treatments open to those women who have an increased risk of developing the disease.
Your level of risk is determined by factors such as your age, your family's medical history, and the results of genetic tests.
The two main treatments are surgery to remove the breasts (mastectomy) or medication.
You can find out more from the NHS.
Julia Ross, Head of Cancer Care, Bupa UK, said: “It can be hard to remember all of the cancer symptoms we’re supposed to be looking out for.
"But early detection is so important to improving outcomes – so I’d urge women to make time to get to know what is normal for their breasts to enable them to identify any changes.
“As well as looking and feeling for lumps in the breast or armpit, changes in size or shape or changes to the nipple such as discharge, a good rule of thumb is to look out for any change that’s unexplained or persistent – and if you’re worried to seek medical advice.”
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Miss Joanna Franks, Consultant Breast & Oncoplastic Surgeon, HCA Healthcare UK, agreed. She added: “Early diagnosis can prevent patients needing to undergo complex surgery and drug treatments.
"90 per cent of women diagnosed at an early stage will be alive and well five years post-diagnosis however, this drops to just 15 per cent for those diagnosed at a later stage."
Of course, there are a host of reasons why you might find a lump, dimpling or nipple discharge other than cancer, but it's always worth getting any changes checked out by a GP immediately.
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